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Jessica Lal Murder: SC clears ‘hostile’ ballistic expert who was ‘extremely confused’, not hostile [READ JUDGMENT]


Jessica Lal murder case hostile witness Prem Sagar Manocha – the ballistic expert who was charged for perjury by the Delhi high court in May 2013 – was cleared of the charge by the Supreme Court on Wednesday.

A bench of Chief Justice of India TS Thakur and Justice Kurian Joseph said that Manocha had been “extremely confused” about the question asked of him at trial, and had not given a “voluntary, let alone deliberate deposition, before the court”. Therefore, it was “unjust and unfair” to attribute oblique motives to him.

Capstone Legal partner Ashish Kumar Singh briefed senior advocate KV Viswanathan for Manocha who, at the time of the alleged offence, was the Rajasthan State Forensic Science Laboratory’s deputy director.

In the landmark murder case the Delhi high court, in 2006, had convicted 10 persons for the 1999 murder of Delhi-based model and actor Jessica Lal. The Supreme Court, in 2010, upheld the convictions including that of main-accused Manu Sharma who had fired gunshots at Lal at the party where she, as a bartender, had refused to serve him a drink. Sharma is the son of Haryana Congress leader Vinod Sharma.

Manocha, in his capacity as an expert at the year 2000 trial in the murder case, had changed his stand in court. The Delhi police had asked for his opinion on whether the bullets fired at Jessica were from the same firearm.

In his written statement he had said that a conclusive opinion on the question was not possible in the absence of the firearm for testing in the laboratory. In his oral deposition before the trial court he said that the bullets appear to have been filed from different firearms.

The Delhi high court, on 20 December 2006 initiated perjury proceedings against 32 hostile witnesses in the case, including Manocha whose “somersault”, the court believed, was “calculated to let the accused Manu Sharma off the hooks” as by the time he stepped onto the witness box “the defence had formed its definite plan about a ‘two weapon theory’”.

Viswanathan argued before the Supreme Court that Manocha’s case is “not even a borderline case” of perjury since he only tendered his expert professional opinion.

The Supreme Court observed:

“We fail to understand how the stand taken by the appellant, as above, attracts the offence of perjury. As we have already observed above, the appellant has all through been consistent that as an expert, a definite opinion in the case could be given only if the suspected firearm is available for examination.

It is nobody’s case that scientifically an expert can give a definite opinion by only examining the cartridges as to whether they have been fired from the same firearm. It was the trial court which insisted for an opinion without the presence of the firearm, and in that context only, the appellant gave the non-specific and indefinite opinion. An expert, in such a situation, could not probably have given a different opinion.”

The bench further went on to caution against initiating perjury proceedings against experts without giving the expert’s evidence a “closer scrutiny” , “that too especially when the expert himself has lodged a caveat regarding his inability to form a definite opinion without the required material”. It said that the difference in opinion in this instance was not sufficient to reject the evidence from Manocha and call him hostile. It added:

“The duty of an expert is to furnish the court his opinion and the reasons for his opinion along with all the materials. It is for the court thereafter to see whether the basis of the opinion is correct and proper and then form its own conclusion.”

Read judgment

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